Personal Space

Personal Space

Susan Fedynak


— 0 1 —

A cloud of talcum powder settles around me and the woman who touches my face studies the lost shape of my eyebrows. The woman who touches my face goes tsk tsk, you’ve waited too long. She can embarrass me a little because I need her.

I always wait too long. For everything, I say. 

Disdain for my feral eyebrows shows in the creases around her mouth. She attacks the tough white hairs that grow opposite the rest, bobbing her head like a hungry bird. The woman who touches my face and goes tsk tsk uses a cotton thread held between her teeth, then looped through her fingers and twisted tight like barbs around a wire. She removes one hair at a time, plucking them away with the taut thread, quickly working to make my face look more like my face. You’re good at your job, I say when she’s done and she hands me a mirror. Of course I am, she says. In my country, I have a terminal degree in math.

The woman who touches my face goes tsk tsk, you’ve waited too long.

— 0 2 —

On the way to my next appointment, a toddler sits next to me on the bus. His cheeks are a wind-whipped red and he thrashes purposefully, as if he is the one propelling our jumbo vehicle forward. Whenever he moves, tiny light bulbs on the toes of his sneakers illuminate in bursts of silent musicality. Where do they hide the batteries in shoes so small? I’d like a pair in my size, or at least a few of those lights on the collar of my denim jacket. 

The plump nanny whose lap he sits on shushes him, even though he’s said nothing. I’m sorry, she says to me, to the top of the boy’s head, to anyone listening. Don’t worry about it, I say, we’ve all got our thing. Mmm, that’s the truth. She volunteers that she’s superstitious about keeping exactly three cough drops in her pocket at all times. If I discover I have only two, I absolutely go to pieces. I tell her I obsessively apply lipstick before doctor visits. Is your doctor cute? No, but I have a fear of disappointing him. I’m on my way there now—how do I look? Do I look disappointing? You’ve got a mouth red as a fire truck, I think you’ll be A-OK.  

The child taps my knee three times with his flashing shoes, and I nod, taking this as a ceremony of good luck. 

You’ve got a mouth red as a fire truck,
I think you’ll be A-OK.  

— 0 3 —

At the orthopedic clinic, the doctor wants to know how I’m doing. Anything different from last week? He lists a menu of sensations like a living thesaurus of hurt. Does it pulse, does it radiate, does it feel like hot coals or like being smacked with a hammer? Does it feel like a bee sting, does it feel like a breakup, does it throb, does it ache, does it go away when you think about something else, is it all you can think about? Can you remember a time when it didn’t hurt? 

Then he presses through to the bone on the side of my right leg, then my left. He knows exactly where to go, not because he has studied a secret art, or carries a forked dowsing rod next to his stethoscope, or has touched palm to head and pulled down a divine prognosis, but because minutes before in the waiting room I had circled places on a stick-figure body and checked boxes yes, no, yes. Each mark gives permission to touch me here, here, and here.

At the end of the visit I am invited to touch the doctor’s diploma. Briefly, gently, instructs the nurse. I decline. There are so many greasy fingerprints already.

Can you remember a time
when it didn’t hurt? 

— 0 4 —

It seems possible that every resident of Manhattan must be X-rayed before me, and I fall asleep in a lumpy vinyl chair while waiting my turn. I dream of a seamstress named Oola, and her shop with bolts of fabric huddled in the corner, and long lengths of zippers spilling off spools hung from the ceiling. Just last week I took a pair of real pants to the real Oola in her real shop. In my dream, we are required to use the word trousers. Pants do not exist. In my dream, Oola wears suspenders made of measuring tape and she grasps my bare ankles tightly as I model my trousers.

These are wonderful trousers, she says. I can make them look fabulous on you. All we have to do is hem the legs by three inches.

My legs?

Yes, your legs. You didn’t think I meant the pants' legs, did you?

Oola, I trust you, but this sounds expensive.

Nothing comes cheap, says Oola, especially not fashion, especially not fabulous trousers. But they are always worth it, worth every last penny. She hums something jolly and of her own invention while chalking measurements onto the skin of my calves.

I can make them look fabulous on you.

— 0 5 —

The X-ray technician touches many loud buttons on a control pad before touching the top of many blue gowns stacked on a shelf, before handing me one and touching the doorknob, which means please change quickly. X-rays, I’ve come to learn, must be taken in windowless rooms.

This time I lie down in the dark subterranean level of a hospital named in honor of a saint I don’t remember learning about in school. When he returns, the technician says I have to do this for your sake and lays two flat stones, heavy as lead because they are lead, where he guesses my ovaries may be. He is first-day-on-the-job shy. Never-kissed-a-girl shy. He is I’ve-seen-the-insides-of-too-many-people shy. Through my gown he uses his thumbs to find the hard bumps of my hipbones, a nervous driver behind the wheel, and readjusts the protective lead.

He is first-day-on-the-job shy.
Never-kissed-a-girl shy.

— 0 6 —

Later, on the subway, a teenager with shining, sweat-slick skin pulls at the waistband of his track pants and touches the back of my elbow. He has the unexpected politeness of another era. Like a valet, a coach driver, a servant who has not yet learned to bite. Excuse me, miss, but it’s showtime. Which means, please get off my stage. He flicks his baseball cap off his head and onto the train car floor where it lands upward like a palm open to the rain, ready to collect coins and small bills all the same. We are from the future, he announces. And the crew of boys behind him begins to spin on their knees, on their toes, on their heads to the thumping bass of some big brother’s castoff boom box. And this is ballet from the future, they belt in chorus while their leader takes a solo. His limbs move at ninety-degree angles. He performs stiff somersaults like spinning stars, like god bless the precision of a computerized cog. He accompanies himself with a tooth-buzzing whistle, assuring us he is from the future, a card-carrying robot, the sounds insinuating a slight mechanical breakdown in an otherwise fine-looking machine. You’re wrong, I whisper. I can’t remember who told me the future would be well oiled and, if not productive, at least silent. I can’t remember who told me, but I believed them. 


Susan Fedynak is a native of Queens, NY, where she is currently based. She is a workshop leader for NY Writers Coalition, a graduate of Emerson College, and an MFA candidate at Pratt Institute. 

Illustrated by Meghan Murphy.



Salinger Kids

Salinger Kids